Hernia operation an enlightening hospital experience

20:42, Nov 16 2012

I'm the sort of person who realises, with utter certainty, that what might appear - to the untrained eye - to be the onset of the common cold is actually meningitis. So it was uncharacteristic of me, the day I sighted a jaunty lump in my groin, to think blithely, "Oh, it's probably just a hernia".

These things aren't uncommon, particularly if you have ever dedicated some significant time to spending your days lifting bags of cement. I once had a job that was mostly lifting bags of cement, which probably set the thing off. The fact that my father and grandfather also had them probably didn't help - there's apparently a genetic component. The finishing touch for me came one day, when lifting a piano. (I'd like to say single-handedly, but I was one of three.) A ripping sensation, thinking "ow", saying "Jesus God". It was the most religious moment I've had in years.

I went to my doctor. "I think I've got a hernia." He cupped me with great sensitivity. "Cough," he said, and when I did, "You've got a hernia."

Hernias are interesting things. They don't bother you, until they suddenly do. You can be walking along merrily when you suddenly feel a bit of your gut neatly slide through a hole in your muscle into a pocket of skin, which doesn't so much hurt as feel very strange. You can prod it, if you like. Then it hurts. Things you cannot do: lifting, ice-skating, impromptu drunken kickboxing. Correction: you can do all these things, but they bring regret.

My GP referred me to a specialist at Waikato Hospital. He cupped me with great sensitivity. "Cough," he said. I did. "Want to get that fixed?" he asked. I did.

A hernia fix is an elective surgery, unless it becomes inflamed. Then it's like having appendicitis in your testicles and you are seen to quite quickly. I was happy that this did not happen to me. My wait time was around six months. The letter came from Waikato DHB telling me I had a week to get ready.


The trip to the anaesthetist was sobering. She was a lovely woman. We got along very well. "The risk of death from general anaesthesia can be around one in 60,000, depending on the condition you're in," she said. "It's about the same as driving from here to Wellington." I hate that drive. "How long have you taken off work?" A day, I said. "You'll need more like a week," she said.

Waiting for the surgery, I didn't exactly set my affairs in order, but I did make a point of catching up with any family and friends I hadn't talked to in a while. I'll be honest: I was very scared. I don't trust anaesthesia at all. It seems too close to being dead.

The lovely woman from the other day was my anaesthetist on the day of the surgery. She swooped on me with two other anaesthetists. "We hunt in packs," joked one. I laughed. They gave me an amnesiac sedative, I giggled, and after that a nurse showed me the new 10-centimetre scar on my abdomen.

It was great. They'd given me morphine. The rest of that day was wonderful. Then the morphine wore off.

The nurses were wonderful, even after the morphine was gone. One was from South Africa and the night after surgery, when I could not stand up to go to the toilet, she helped me while I tried not to cry from pain and from being suddenly crippled.

"You're a big man, getting up like this," she said.

"A lot of people would just use the bottle." This helped more than I could say.

Bladder and bowel movements become works of great thought and effort, like writing an epic fantasy trilogy. Then they happen, and the relief is replaced by a vague worry that you've just produced Fifty Shades of Grey.

I was in the urology ward with three other men. Awake, they were all good blokes. Asleep, they were satanic. All of them snored, a machinegun chorus.

Then their catheters malfunctioned one after another, from about 3am until 5am. I didn't sleep until I tied a T-shirt around my head. "You should have said," a nurse told me. "We have earplugs." The nurses hurry you out of the wards as soon as you are able to leave. Apparently, you recover much faster that way.

I'm home now and still feel like I've swallowed a brick covered in broken glass. But I feel nothing but appreciation for the wonderful health system that fixed me up, and will fix any New Zealander up, for free, for reasonably few questions asked, and with incredible kindness and care.

Joshua Drummond is a Hamilton freelance writer who recommends taking the train to Wellington. It's much more interesting than driving.